The universe is the biggest and oldest thing we know. It contains all existing matter and space. And its origin marks the beginning of time as far as we understand it. We don’t know what made the formation of the universe possible, nor why it occurred. The visible universe is currently about 93 billion light years wide.
A light-year is a distance that light travels in a year, which makes the universe about 880 trillion trillion metres wide. The visible universe is, however, still expanding, and we can measure that rate of expansion. Then, working backwards, we can figure out when the universe would have begun. To the best of our knowledge, the universe formed about 13.8 billion years ago in what is commonly referred to as the Big Bang.
This image shows the universe about 370000 years after the Big Bang, which is the oldest light that we’ve been able to record with the greatest precision. The image records ancient light or cosmic microwave background. The colours show tiny temperature fluctuations from an average temperature. These indicate areas of different densities, which became the stars and galaxies of today. Red spots are a bit hotter and blue spots a bit cooler. The image was recorded between 2009 and 2013, during the Planck mission, when the space observatory was operated by the European Space Agency, in conjunction with NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Today, the universe is very cold. On average, it is 2.7Kelvin. Kelvin is a measure of temperature with the same magnitude as degrees Celsius. But 0 Kelvin equals minus 273.15 degrees Celsius.
In the universe, the hot parts, such as stars, make up only a tiny fraction. If we wind the clock backwards, the universe gets smaller. And this means the universe was hotter in the past. When matter gets hot, solids melt and liquids boil. The hot matter glows – red at first, but it becomes bluer as the temperature goes up. Eventually, all matter is gas. So we have a bright, glowing blob of gas. Going further back in time, as the gas gets hotter, the electrons are separated from the nuclei and a plasma is made. The temperature at this point is about 3000 to 6000 Kelvin and the glowing blob is white hot. As we go back further in time, the universe gets even smaller and hotter.
The nuclei themselves, containing protons and neutrons, are broken up. The reason for the breakup of nuclei is that the individual particles and the energy of the radiation are so great that the collisions of all this hot stuff are incredibly violent. The light is no longer in the visible spectrum. It is energetic enough to be x-rays and even gamma rays. Between just 10 seconds and 1000 seconds after the Big Bang, subatomic particles, including neutrons and protons, were formed. Neutrons live for just 9 minutes when they are free. Hence only those that stuck to protons during this period survived. All of the ordinary matter present today formed in this short window of time.
At about 1 microsecond after the Big Bang, the universe was very hot, at 10 to the 10 Kelvin, and quarks formed stable particles called hadrons. Before 1 picosecond, or 10 to the minus 12 seconds, the universe was an exotic place. The gas was hotter still and the laws of physics appeared different to how we see them today. The distinction between matter and radiation, such as light, cannot be detected. The forces of electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force also become indistinguishable. At the very earliest times, the universe was so hot and dense that we cannot yet describe them accurately.